Sports are unusual in this country because they reward a select few high achievers with extreme upward mobility at a young age. Scan the roster of your favorite pro team, and you will find somebody who was scrounging for meals as a teenager and in the top 0.01 percent of earners in their 20s. They have lived both the roughest and finest of American lives, and yet many of us tell them to stick to sports. The request is foolish and self-defeating. We should be begging them to share their experiences. If we do that, we can confront the painful truth that America is not currently constructed to benefit everybody.
The tragedy unfolding in Minneapolis this week is painful and heartbreaking, but it is not surprising. Before George Floyd, there was Philando Castile and Eric Garner and so many others, and there were Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid and the LeBron James–Dwyane Wade Miami Heat and dozens of other prominent athletes telling us to pay attention. Many white people picked apart their methods instead of listening to their message, and please understand: Every time you ask a black athlete to stick to sports, you are asking that athlete to be selfish.
Shut up, do your job, count your money, be happy. Hey, it works for me.
But it doesn't work for everybody. That's the point. It does not work for everyone.
Police brutality is not the biggest killer of people of color, but it is a flashpoint partly because of the implication: that the state exists, in part, to keep certain people down, and it will use extreme force to do so. If some of the people who are supposed to protect you attack you instead, what chance do you have? A segment of society that feels disconnected from the rest naturally will rebel—to be heard, and to gain what can’t otherwise be gotten.
Many of our best athletes understand this precisely because they have been on both sides of the economic divide. LeBron James. Kevin Durant. Lamar Jackson. Richard Sherman. They have seen talented friends stranded or killed. They have also seen mediocre people in power in sports, not because of any exceptional talent or drive but because their starting blocks were closer to the finish line.
Perhaps the greatest perk of privilege is naiveté—the ability to tell yourself racism is a thing of the past, that America rewards anybody who works for it, that everybody has a fair shot. Those are myths, but saying so out loud makes privileged people uncomfortable. That is why Kaepernick lost his career—not because NFL owners thought he was wrong, but because they decided his political views were bad for business.
Kaepernick’s views were bad for his business, too. He shared them anyway. From all indications, he would do it again, even though he still wants to play football. The cost was grossly unfair and also worth it.
The president of the United States called Kaepernick a “son of a b----” for what he did. He called the protestors in the streets of Minneapolis “THUGS.” They make him angry and uncomfortable; they are bad for his business; they are not like him. He would rather see them disappear than listen to them and try to understand their plight. He doesn’t want protests to be violent or peaceful. He just wants them to go away. This is also the attitude he and many others have toward the news media these days. The people who try to inform are demonized as the enemy.
America is a wonderful country in so many ways, but it is not perfect. Income inequality is wide, access to quality health care is varied, racism is persistent and violence is far, far too common. The most fortunate among us are often just “people that came out of the right womb,” as billionaire investor Warren Buffett said earlier this month. Very few people spend their lives at the bottom and the top, but elite athletes often do. We should listen to them.
My favorite sports statistic does not involve wins or home runs, but time: seven years. Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball seven years before the Supreme Court ruled, in Brown v. Board of Education, that segregating public schools was illegal. It will forever be a reminder that sports can be a locomotive of progress. Today’s best-known athletes make a fortune. We can tell them they are lucky, or we can listen to them explain just how lucky they are.